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Public Speaking - Masters of the Pause Part I

Jul 31, 2008
It's common to believe, when you listen to great speakers at work, that certain people are simply born with the talent to speak well, and therefore no amount of training or practicing is going to transform you into a great speaker, no matter how hard you try. And while it's true that both John Kennedy and Bill Clinton have what most people don't - charisma - their ability to speak as they do was not part of what they were born with.

Bill Clinton was not always a great speaker. He was guilty of several bad practices, one being common to the political class: Clinton actually thought people wanted to hear elected officials go on at the mouth for one, two, or even three hours. The truth is you rarely hear someone say, "That was a great presentation - I only wished he would have droned on for another hour or so". And FDR is famous for his advice to public speakers: Be sincere; be brief; be seated!

Brevity is the soul of wit, but it's also the heart of a great talk. President Ronald Reagan, the person for whom the name "The Great Communicator" was coined, had a strict limit of 45 minutes, but preferred to stay under 25 whenever possible.

Another annoying practice of Clinton's was the repeated use of his forefinger to point at the audience when he spoke. People tend to feel uncomfortable when pointed at, and we know how important it is for audience members to feel comfortable. His handlers never could break him of the general motion, but they were able to train him to crank that finger back into his hand and then lock it down with his thumb.

You can probably easily picture Bill Clinton with his fist moving up and down, thumb pointed outward as it held a firm grip on his finger, declaring to the assembled press, "I did not have relations with that woman, that Monica Lewinsky..."

Finally, like most people, and by far the majority of politicians, he would rarely stop the word flow once he started. As charming and charismatic as he was with individuals, when speaking in public, he did not understand the essence of the pause. But his handlers knew the respect he had for his "mentor", and so they sat him down and had him watch videotapes of JFK over and over again until he got it.

A New Style

Clinton's speaking style is really a modernized version of Kennedy's. But JFK was one of the most influential speakers of the 2oth century, in that he really introduced the "humanistic" style of public speaking. Prior to Kennedy's showing the world the power of an authoritarian's speaking to his "subjects" on equal terms, we had the "oratory" style, best exemplified by Winston Churchill.

Churchill spoke to us from on high - Kennedy brought speech down to the level of the common man, and people loved him for it.

We are not suggesting that every time you give a speech or deliver a presentation you should speak as if you were the president of your country. We use these two men as examples because they learned just how powerful the pause can be when needing to persuade others to see things as you do. The reality is that few people will ever use as many pauses when they present as these and other Masters of The Skills, but then most people don't average 10,000 or so people in their audiences.

But we want you, from this point forward, to be constantly hearing these cadences in your head when you speak, with the understanding that you'll be gaining more and more message uptake the more you strive to hit their stride. Right now, we would wager that you probably average no less than 25 words between pauses, and that many of you don't pause at all. If you want to be a speaker who can truly lay claim to having The Skills, you must work to incorporate the pause at least at the end of every thought.
About the Author
J. Douglas Jefferys is a principal at PublicSpeakingSkills.com, an international consulting firm specializing in training businesses of all sizes to communicate for maximum efficiency. The firm spreads its unique knowledge through on-site classes, public seminars, and high-impact videos, and can be reached through the Internet or at 888-663-7711.
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